As we headed into 2010, the general opinion was that netbooks would rule the portable computer market, thanks to their affordable price and long battery life. But that was not to be. Netbook makers were outclassed by tablets, and the battle appears to be lost.
The launch of the Apple iPad (in April 2010) took the netbook world by surprise and inevitably, a slew of similar devices slid into the market. Two things happened: First, there was a hole the size of China that opened up, splitting the hapless army of netbooks and laptops, and a completely new genre of gadgets caught our fancy. Second, the me-toos attacked with full force and rode into that gap, virtually unopposed.
Fighting in the ranks
Samsung was the most aggressive attacker, led by the now famous general, the Galaxy Tab. Ill-equipped when compared with Apple’s one-man army, whose most destructive weapon was an OS designed for tablets from the ground up, the Galaxy tab had to struggle a bit with a more modest weapon—the Android 2.2 (Froyo) OS, which was built for mobile phones.
Another aspect that was different was the fact that the Apple iPad had a 10.1-inch screen, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab had a smaller 7-inch screen. While Apple boasted of capturing larger screen area, Samsung touted the more manoeuvrable form factor of its device.
Relationships broke down, and the tablet army was plunged into a debate on whether a 10-inch screen is better than a 7-inch one—tempers still flare easily on this.
The clone wars
Manufacturers attempted to use their choice of operating system as a means of differentiating their tablet from their rival’s. What started out as mere military action between Apple’s iOS and Android—courtesy the iPad vs Galaxy Tab—quickly became a full-blown war, with everyone using the same weapon to try and annihilate the competition.
The fact is that Android has since seen major updates from 2.2 (Froyo) to 2.3 (Gingerbread, in December) and now 3.0 (Honeycomb, February), and this did not help the early adopters much. There were casualties.
The problem was, as we said earlier, that Android was never really built with a tablet interface and hardware in mind. Only with Gingerbread did we see the first Android version built for tablets.
With everyone and their uncle becoming a tablet-powered brand, the cold war turned into an economic war of sorts. Prices fell—the Galaxy Tab launched at about Rs 36,000, but can be bought for about Rs 25,000 today. More models than ever before were released.
Running out of ammo
Everyone was so busy peddling weapons that they forgot to spend any time looking for the right ammo. At the time, a majority of the apps available for Android were designed for tiny screens, and with manufacturers squeezing out tablets in all shapes and screen sizes, there was chaos.
Apps designed for smartphones were of no use on the higher-calibre tablets. Porting apps to almost double the screen size took time, and apps backfired often, throwing up some rather ugly rendering issues. Thankfully, these days only the worst apps show any signs of those wretched days.
Charge of the Droid brigade
2011 began with a bang. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, US, is the place to be early in the year, and we all got glimpses of what to expect. In fact, just over a month later in February, at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, BlackBerry, HTC, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Acer, Asus, Toshiba, LG and Samsung showcased their iPad “killers”.
Over the course of 2010, it became clear that light arms had about 600 Mhz of processing power, which managed decent screen resolutions. In contrast, the big guns had a Navarone-sized 1 Ghz processor, much more RAM, a better screen resolution and the ability to play back HD videos.
Actually, today, almost every tablet claims to be able to record 720p HD videos and play back HD videos without any stutter. We’re headed into another stalemate with hardware becoming standard across the board. Apps sell tablets, not the interface or hardware.
Currently, there are five different operating systems at play in the tablet ecosystem. They are the Apple iOS, Google Android, Research In Motion (RIM) QNX Playbook OS, HP WebOS, and Microsoft Windows 7.
While Apple tasted success immediately in the tablet market, Android has gotten off to a steady start as well, helped by the sheer variety of products based on Android, compared to just one from Apple. However, Android still shows some rough edges.
This is what we think will happen now.
• Android’s “made for the tablet” 3.0 version will take tablets into a completely different league. The interface tweaks, media playback capabilities, support for faster hardware and the clampdown on the ability of the hardware manufacturers to “over-customize” it will mean that the OS from Google’s stable will be more streamlined (and optimized) than ever before. Will that mean a better experience for the end user? Maybe, maybe not.
• RIM’s Playbook tablet is aimed as much at the casual user as it is targeted at the enterprise users. The attempt is to make the entire office experience available to the user on an even bigger screen, with the fun capabilities (media playback prowess and even games) to boot. A complete tablet? Not really, but it will be the tablet for the business user, to complement the BlackBerry smartphone. QNX is the OS installed in this tablet. RIM is attempting to handle the app issue by making this compatible with Android apps. If that doesn’t work, QNX will need a Plan B.
• HP is using the WebOS to challenge Android. However, this is the same OS that could not save Palm’s smartphone business. Hard to imagine it successfully challenging Android and iOS. However, HP realizes the importance of this, and it is the one shot that’ll make or break its tablet. HP has trashed a lot of WebOS updates. The work on improving the WebOS continues with no compromises, and for the sake of competition, we hope it works.
• Microsoft’s tablet plans. This is one riddle almost no one has been able to figure out. While some Windows 7-based tablets have been released, powered by Intel’s Atom processor, it is essentially a desktop OS behaving like a desktop OS inside a tablet. Compared with the slickness of the rivals, this one is a lumbering giant. Do not expect any dedicated OS for the tablet in 2011. However, what surprises us is the fact that Microsoft hasn’t thought of putting the Windows Phone 7 OS on tablets. It worked for Android, after all. Expect this to dawn upon them sooner or later.
• Apple iPad 3? Not likely, we say. Apple will let the iPad 2 get all the accolades till at least the beginning of next year. And that will complete the one-year life cycle of the iPad 2 anyway.
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